Homily for the Mass of the Holy Spirit
August 23, 2012
Fr. Steven C. Boguslawski, O.P., gave the following homily on Monday, August 20th, the Memorial of St. Bernard. The Mass of the Holy Spirit was held in the Priory Chapel of the Dominican House of Studies. This annual tradition, asking for the Lord’s blessings on the new academic year at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, was attended by students, faculty, staff, and friends. I have a vivid recollection as a very young child, seated upon my father’s knee, as he instructed me: “Steven, remember this: if you always speak the truth, you never have to remember the lie.” There is a practical aspect to this parental maxim: we needn’t clutter our memories with fictitious details that constitute or abet a lie. The scriptures and secular literature abound with examples of persons who betray their lack of truth-telling with embellishing details that are equally false: we think for example of the accusers of Susanna (“under what tree did you see them together? Asks Daniel (c. 13): “Under a mastic tree”, says one. “Under an oak,” replies the other. “Your fine lie has cost you your head also!”) Whether Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Aesop’s Fables we come to recognize that individuals “trip themselves up” (so to speak) in the details of a lie and, usually, their comeuppance takes place in short order. They are duly punished. And justice is satisfied. At the heart of such instructive literature is some form of this maxim: if you always speak the truth, you never have to remember the lie. You might say, the very ordering of social institutions, relies upon truth-telling, which is why we are so disappointed when public persons deceive us, whether these be civil or ecclesial authorities. Of all people (especially those entrusted with the common good), these persons must be truth-tellers. The scriptures today teach us something more radical (literally), namely, that the Truth must be “embodied” (“rooted”, radix) in those who speak for the Lord; it is not enough simply to be the relator of what God says; there is a more profound conformity, indeed, identity, that is required. In the lesson from Ezekiel we hear the repetition of the phrase: “The Word of the Lord came to me.” He claims an immediacy of communication. And Ezekiel is instructed: “Say to the House of Israel: Thus says the Lord!” Without question, Ezekiel’s words are God’s Words. And Ezekiel’s hearing and his speaking are inextricably united with his actions. We are told that he did not mourn or weep or shed any tears; he was shod and covered, even at the death of his wife. “That evening my wife died, and the next morning I did as I had been commanded.” Ezekiel, not only spoke God’s Words, he himself became the Sign for the House of Israel. So they too are instructed: “all that he did you shall do when it happens: Thus you shall know that I am the Lord.” This is not mere compliance on the part of Ezekiel; rather, it is the total transformation of his life in conformity with the Word of the Lord that came to him directly. Through Ezekiel, God’s identity is revealed and the people have assured knowledge: I am the Lord. So conformed is the prophet, that he is the Sign for the House of Israel. A firm, reliable sign, worthy of imitation in the pending crisis: “you shall do as I have done, not covering your beards nor eating the customary bread. Your turbans shall remain on your heads, you sandals on your feet. You shall not mourn or weep, but you shall rot away because of your sins and groan one to another.” This sort of truth-telling does not admit of a lie, nor of self-deception. The messenger is the message. In the gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus encounters a young man who, at first, appears to be impetuous and even a bit brash. He poses a question about how to gain eternal life, which the Lord recasts, with an implied rebuke: “Why do you ask me about the good?” The dialogue continues, with a result familiar to us. The young man walks away sad– it seems–solely because he had many possessions. But the young man’s plight is much more profound than an inability to give his worldly goods away. While he brashly states that he has observed the commandments that Jesus lists in reply to his second question, the man’s observance still remains at the level of compliance. When Jesus demands that he rid himself of his temporal goods, that he freely dispossess himself in order to follow the One Who is Good, the young man’s self-deception is unmasked. Jesus’ reply to his third question is decidedly not what the young man had anticipated. The obstacle is not his possessions per se, but rather the lack of conformity to the commands of God after a lifetime of observance. Were it otherwise, Jesus’ demand for dispossession would have met with a different outcome. (Perhaps even relief!) If one is to be a follower of the Lord, the messenger must be conformed to the message. Why? Because the sort of truth-telling that will be required of the disciple, admits neither of a lie nor of self-deception. The young man deceives himself thinking that he is “farther along” the way of perfection than he actually is. What we have sensed from the “proud tone” of his insistent questioning throughout the encounter becomes apparent, as sadness overtakes him. The Word of God has instructed him, and he walks away. While one may hope that the young man is eventually “rehabilitated,” in his present state, he cannot be a Sign to others. Why? Because the Truth must be embodied in those who speak for the Lord. It is not enough to be a relator of what God says; there is a more profound conformity that is required. The refusal to relinquish temporal possessions bespeaks a more serious problem that constrains him from following Jesus at all. What are we to learn from these two studies in contrast, Ezekiel and the Rich Young Man? First that God asserts an absolute claim upon each one of us. Second, that the Lord’s claim does not allow room for a “negotiated compromise” but summons us to conversion. Third, that dispossession (whether of wife or property or personal plans) conforms us to the Word of the Lord entrusted to each of us. Fourth, that free obedience to the Lord’s bidding makes the disciple a reliable Sign for others. Fifth, that such Signs disclose God’s identity, God’s salvific plan for His people, as well as God’s persistent faithfulness. And finally, that the Divine address of grace (whether to the House of Israel or to the Church) does not admit of any self-deception or lie, but only the Truth at work within us and in others—until the messenger fully becomes the message. That is, until “we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Those of us who aspire to public ecclesial service (or who presently exercise this ministry), do well to return again to these fundamental truths. We to whom the Word of the Lord is directed and entrusted. Whether from the podium or from the pulpit, we are engaged with nothing less than God’s Self-Disclosure, in the Sacred Sciences and the study of Sacred Scriptures. Like the young man in the Gospel according to Matthew, it can seem “all too much for us” or overwhelming…especially if we think ourselves “farther along the way” than we actually are in the process of conversion and spiritual maturity. We might at times even be tempted to walk away sad. And that is one reason we begin each academic year with the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the Sacrifice of the Mass—because, truth be told, what we seek is beyond our reach unaided. We should not think ourselves thus far so observant or so competent or so proficient that we imitate the brash immaturity of the young man. I repeat what I have said before: The Truth must be “embodied” in those who speak for the Lord; it is not enough simply to be the relator of what God says; there is a more profound radical conformity that is required. The process of conversion and conformity (for most of us) takes a lifetime. God’s self-disclosure is at the very heart of our conversion, because our “self-deception” and “God-speaking” can never be partners. Truth does not countenance the lie. And so, we return again and again the Holy Eucharist to render thanks and petition alike. Thanks for God’s faithful pursuit of us. Petition: for the strength to freely embrace the “dispossessions” that will still be required of each one of us, until we are perfectly conformed to Christ. When the message and the messenger are one. I think is a fitting way to conclude this homily and to begin the new academic year is to cite Gerard Manley Hopkins’ translation of Aquinas’ Adoro te Devote : Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore, Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more, See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art. Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived: How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed; What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.